Spanning southward from Point Pinos and Point Joe along the Pacific coast of central California, down as far as Gamboa Point, or perhaps Cape San Martin, and inland to Tassajara, lies a piece of mountainous California landscape known to many as “Jeffers Country.” It was here, in this largely wild, steep, and rugged terrain of redwood and chaparral, bright sea-cliffs and dark back-country canyons, that Robinson Jeffers found inspiration for many of his epic narrative poems.
During Jeffers’s time, the “Monterey coast-range,” known loosely as Big Sur, was only sparsely settled, and by the hardiest of pioneer ranchers and subsistence farmers. It was these early settlers who came to inspire the human roles in many of Jeffers’s narratives, but roles secondary to the primary role of the landscape:
I cannot walk the mountains as I used to do
But my subject is what it used to be: my love, my loved subject:
Mountain and ocean, rock, water and beasts and trees
Are the protagonists, the human people are only symbolic interpreters . . .
from “Old age hath clawed me with his scaly clutch” (Collected Poems 3: 484)
The natural beauty and sheer magnificence of the Big Sur coast and the Ventana country which it backs had a profound effect on Jeffers. In it he recognized and embraced a timeless and enduring beauty more powerful than anything humanly possible, and expressed his response to it as love. Passages in his works expressing outright awe and deep affection for this strikingly rugged landscape are not uncommon. In his crowning statement of his world-view, including man-in-nature, he writes of his human “interpreter”:
Rain-gray and dark the dawn, but for some reason
The old man’s heart melted; he stood at gaze, his frost-gray eyes
Warm and hollow as a cow’s. He leaned on his axe and slowly turned himself from
the noble hill-tops
To the gray eye of the ocean, the gray rivers of mist in the branching gorges,
the tall black rocks
Gray-based, and the still lakes of pale silver air, and slowly back again
To the nobility of the hill-tops. Suddenly he knelt, and tears ran down
the gullied leather
Of his old cheeks. “Dear love. You are so beautiful.”
from “The Inhumanist” (Collected Poems 3: 288-89)
Today, thanks to ongoing conservation efforts on many fronts resulting in plenty of accessible public lands (both State Parks and National Forest), anyone seeking creative inspiration is free to as Jeffers wrote in “Return” “go down to the lovely Sur Rivers / And dip [their] arms in them up the shoulders,” and perhaps even “find [their] accounting where the alder leaf quivers / In the ocean wind over the river boulders” of Jeffers Country, just as he did, and will find it largely unchanged from earlier times.
Boon Hughey and Richard Hughey
Click here for a map of Jeffers Country by Boon Hughey, which appeared in The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter combined issue numbers 98 & 99 (1996). This map accompanied an exhaustive index of Monterey coast place names that occur in Jeffers’s poetry, titled Jeffers Country Revisited, by Boon Hughey and Richard Hughey.